‘I won’t make a scene… I’ll make a Broadway musical!’ is one of a number of strange lines in Dennie Gordon’s 2003 teen movie vehicle for Amanda Bynes. Somehow based on a 1955 play called The Reluctant Debutante, this fish-out-of-water comedy enjoyed ‘mixed’ reviews and ‘moderate’ success according to Wikipedia, but resurfaces in the streaming age as a gawp-fest for those interested in slumming acting talent and off-kilter observations about Britishness.
Lord Dashwood (Colin Firth) is a British politician who is likely to become Prime Minister, even though he’s not actually a member of the House of Commons. His surprisingly vague campaign comprises of large bill-hoardings with a picture of him smiling, with just the words “Lord Dashwood’ written underneath, although a late details reveals that he’s standing for the “Constituency’ party, in case you thought he was running for the BNP or QAnon. Dashwood’s campaign is thrown into disarray when his long lost daughter Daphne (Bynes) turns up on the doorstep of his palatial home, a jolt in particular for Dashwood’s fiancée (Anna Chancellor). Does Dashwood’s spin-doctor and manager Alistair Payne (2020 Oscar nominee Jonathan Pryce) know anything about where Daphne has sprung from?
What A Girl Wants takes place in the kind of Merrie England that’s familiar from rich texts like Garfield 2; A Tale of Two Kitties, where the royal family, or at least lookalikes, are everywhere, and staid, stuffy Brits just can’t wait for American teenagers to crash their parties and show them how to dance; pop culture iconoclast Holly Valance’s forgotten hit Kiss Kiss gets a brief outing on a very random soundtrack here. There’s also an extended and somewhat shoe-horned-in product-placement for breakfast cereal Coco Pops; the main characters are seen consuming, enjoying, and discussing the enjoyable nature of their consumption of the cereal at several junctures.
What A Girl Wants is, as the title suggests, wish–fulfilment, and not to be taken seriously or internally. Yet there’s something engaging about the clueless portraying of British politics and class-snobbery, particularly given that the original play was written by a Prime Minister’s brother; for a film that gets so much wrong, and the New York locations must be the most fancifully pathetic in any major studio film, it’s clear that the film-makers’ hearts are in the right place, even if every single detail of the film is notably wide of the mark.